Batman: Gotham's Reformer

My colleague Tom Carson makes an excellent point about The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy:

The real joke, as Rush [Limbaugh] might have learned if he’d crammed his posterior into a theater seat before venting, is that The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most deeply conservative movies to come out of Hollywood in years.

Understand, I mean “conservative” in the traditional, more or less honorable sense that Rush and his fellow napalm-eaters have done their best to make obsolete. To a large extent, that’s built right into the source material. To much grimmer effect than his rival, Superman—all that sunshine palaver about “the American way,” feh—Batman has always been the guardian of a social order against chaos, with a pretty dour view of unbridled license and plenty of pessimism about humanity’s prospects for improvement.

It’s absolutely true that Batman is a conservative character, and that this conservatism carries over into both Rises and the Nolan trilogy writ large. Bruce Wayne comes from the monied establishment of Gotham, and Batman exists to defend that order against disorder and radical change.

But Nolan’s Batman isn’t a complete defender of the status quo. The first movie, Batman Begins, emphasizes the extent to which Bruce Wayne comes from a family of reformers; his parents built a cheap transportation system for the city, and his ancestors—as explained by Alfred, the Wayne family's loyal butler—helped transport escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Nolan’s Bruce Wayne has an essential faith in humanity’s ability to improve itself. He sees Gotham as a city that’s lost hope, and with Batman, he seeks to restore it. Hence the scene, again in Begins, where Bruce explains the rationale for Batman to Alfred:

Building on that, he explains to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in The Dark Knight Rises that “anyone could be Batman, that’s the point.” Indeed, the main plot of The Dark Knight centers on Batman’s hope that Harvey Dent—the district attorney who eventually becomes the villain Two-Face—could take his place as a legitimate defender of Gotham.

Some critics have drawn a link between the stated grievances of Bane, the chief antagonist of Rises, and the Occupy movement. Carson notes how Bane’s first attack is on the stock exchange, and how he declares “war on privilege with a rabble-rousing slogan of ‘Equality!’” and thus: "Those who ought to be most offended by the movie are Occupy Wall Street’s 99 percenters and their sympathizers.”

If Occupiers are offended by Nolan’s broadside against radicalism, then they would also be offended by a considerably more liberal Batman. After all, both liberals and conservatives see the value in preserving aspects of the status quo. Liberals seek to change the status quo in favor of those with less power, but to do so from within, through accommodation with power. The simple fact is that a liberal Batman would be just as hostile to left-wing radicalism as a conservative one.

To my mind, the best way to understand Nolan’s Batman is as a counterpoint to Frank Miller’s vision, which has cast a long shadow over the Batman mythos. Miller’s Batman is a distrustful authoritarian, who—in multiple stories—shows contempt for ordinary people, and a fascistic attraction to power. In The Dark Knight trilogy, by contrast, Batman is—at the core—a reformer and humanist who wants the people of Gotham to rise to their full potential.


I don't really know if Nolan's vision can be seen as a broadside against Radicalism.

After all, Bane and the League of Shadows are really Radical. He/They are simply one more force that uses the People in order to carry out a separate agenda. Many have made the argument that the Batman serves as a type of Fascist agent. However, Bane, Ra's al Ghul, and the League fall into that category as well, particularly in this last installment. Using the anger of the Working-class to come to power in an attempt to "restore balance" to "Western Civilization" through mass death.

This is one of the beauties of Nolan's trilogy: There are aren't clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Or maybe better stated: there are clear lines between the good guys and descent into well intentioned excess. Both the Batman and Commissioner Gordon show this. As has been pointed out in multiple places, only John Blake has a truly unimpeachable character.

But back to the main point: just because Bane and the League use the rhetoric of OWS and Radicalism does not make them Radicals. In fact the only character that could really been seen to represent OWS in terms of both class and ideology in Selena Kyle who, like Wayne/the Batman, is unable to turn her back on what she knows to be true, that life does not have to be nasty, brutish, and short; that there is higher potential in the People than any of the villains (Ra's al Ghul, the Joker, or Bane) give them credit for.

You write,

"It’s absolutely true that Batman is a conservative character, and that this conservatism carries over into both Rises and the Nolan trilogy writ large."

And your argument for this?

"Bruce Wayne comes from the monied establishment of Gotham, and Batman exists to defend that order against disorder and radical change."

To which the first, short, and maybe best answer is "Bollocks."

But if you mean by "radical change" something orchestrated by Mao in his Cultural Revolution period or maybe Pol Pot or even Abimael Guzman then I and every liberal, every democrat, and everyone else opposed to ideological mass murder on a genocidal scale say "Three cheers for Batman the conservative!"

And to hell with radical change.

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